The Agribusi­ness Debt Trap Pushes Amer­i­can Farm­ers to Sui­cide

Trillions - - Contents -

Over ten years ago in In­dia, farm­ers who made an ill-fated bar­gain with ge­net­i­cally-mod­i­fied crop seed providers found them­selves un­der such debt that they be­gan to com­mit sui­cide in num­bers over 10,000 per year. A sim­i­lar bad ar­range­ment is plagu­ing Amer­i­can farm­ers now, stuck with hav­ing to stay on the GMO-pes­ti­cide-her­bi­cide cy­cle ev­ery year, with sim­i­larly dis­as­trous con­se­quences.

The fun­da­men­tal na­ture of the GMO provider trap is sim­i­lar ev­ery­where it ap­pears. In­de­pen­dent farm­ers, al­ready un­der pres­sure to pro­duce at higher yields be­cause of low­er­ing food prices, are look­ing for a fast way to break through. The GMO providers of­fer the prospect of higher crop yields for the farm­ers, even though nu­mer­ous stud­ies in the U.S. at least have ques­tioned whether those yields are a re­al­ity. When the GMO crops are part­nered with her­bi­cides such as Mon­santo’s Roundup with glyphosate, or Gmo-matched pes­ti­cides, the farm­ers get what they see as an even bet­ter deal. They can pro­ceed with heavy ap­pli­ca­tions of a pes­ti­cide or her­bi­cide that the GMO crop was ge­net­i­cally-en­gi­neered to re­sist. Those heavy ap­pli­ca­tions will kill un­wanted plants or pests at­tempt­ing to en­croach on the farm­land, fur­ther im­prov­ing the yields and sim­pli­fy­ing the farm­ing process. In some cases, the crops even cre­ate their own built-in pes­ti­cide through the ge­netic-en­gi­neer­ing process, mak­ing the seeds truly seem like a mag­i­cal gift.

With the deal come mul­ti­ple catches, few of which are ap­par­ent to the farm­ers when they first sign up with the GMO providers. The first is that the seed, although it may seem like any other seed they have had be­fore, is a patented prod­uct owned by the com­pany pro­vid­ing the seed. Among other things what that means is that if there is ex­cess seed left over at the end of a plant­ing sea­son, even though the farm­ers may have paid for that seed they do not have a right to plant it next sea­son. To keep us­ing the same seed prod­uct in a sec­ond year they must buy again, of­ten at higher – even sig­nif­i­cantly higher – prices than they had to pay in that first ‘in­tro­duc­tory’ year of the use of the seed. The pes­ti­cides and her­bi­cides are also of­ten pro­pri­etary prod­ucts matched pre­cisely to the spe­cific GMOS the farm­ers have planted. Those items are also con­stantly go­ing up in price, but if the farm­ers want to keep go­ing they must keep pay­ing the prices for those as well. The next part of the trap is that it is of­ten very dif­fi­cult for a farmer who has started us­ing a GMO seed to switch back to con­ven­tional seeds. The rea­son here is that since there is in­evitably left­over GMO seed still res­i­dent in a farm­ers’ soils, when the new plant­ing sea­son comes around, some of that resid­ual seed will ger­mi­nate and grow. Since those seeds are part of the patented prop­erty of the GMO provider, in the U.S. at least and now more com­monly in other coun­tries as well, the GMO provider may visit farms it sup­plied seed for in the past – or ad­ja­cent to such farms – to see if farm­ers who have de­cided not to re­new their pur­chase con­tracts with the GMO providers are “il­le­gally” mak­ing use of some of the resid­ual seed. In the U.S. the GMO providers have ei­ther sued or threat­ened to sue farm­ers for “theft of in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty” if their resid­ual seed grows in the new year. Faced with mas­sive le­gal fees if they try to fight the cases, farm­ers of­ten cave in and agree to pay for yet an­other year of use of the ge­net­i­cally-mod­i­fied seed.

The fi­nal part of the trap is per­haps the most in­sid­i­ous. With or­di­nary seed, there may be as many as thou­sands of dif­fer­ent va­ri­eties of any given kind of crop be­ing planted in a re­gion. Such bio­di­ver­sity is one of many ways na­ture helps pro­tect it­self from be­com­ing a vic­tim of a given pest or weed that may come its way. With GMO seeds, the agribusi­ness providers look to masspro­duce a sin­gle species of ge­net­i­cally-en­gi­neered crops as a cost-sav­ings move. That elim­i­nates that bio­di­ver­sity pro­tec­tion, some­times with dev­as­tat­ing re­sults.

In In­dia, one way this man­i­fested only a hand­ful of years ago was with Mon­santo’s Bt Boll­gard and Bt Boll­gard-ii cot­ton seeds. The first Bt Boll­gard crops had been en­gi­neered to pro­tect against the ex­ist­ing strains of pink boll­worm (pectinophora gossyp­iella), a pest which left on its own could run through an en­tire cot­ton crop quickly and de­stroy a ma­jor part of a farm­ers’ yields. Na­ture has a way of pro­tect­ing it­self, so as the first Bt Boll­gard strains went out in vol­ume in the fields, the orig­i­nal pink boll­worm evolved quickly in the face of so much of just one thing to pro­tect it­self from. An evo­lu­tion­ary branch of the orig­i­nal pink boll­worm which was im­mune to the built-in pes­ti­cide in Bt Boll­gard ap­peared, at­tack­ing farm­ers in large vol­umes.

Mon­santo re­sponded with the sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion Bt Bol­gard-ii seed va­ri­ety, but even that the pest quickly re­sponded to it by evolv­ing re­sis­tance yet again.

In In­dia’s case the pest re­sponded in small num­bers start­ing in 2010, with­out a lot of im­pact on yields. Then in the 2015-16 sea­son larger quan­ti­ties of crop were af­fected, with yield losses of 7 to 8 per­cent. The sit­u­a­tion grew far worse for the com­ing year. State rev­enue and agri­cul­tural agen­cies re­ported in Novem­ber 2017 and Fe­bru­ary-march 2018 that the evolved pink boll­worm had af­fected over 80% of the 4.2 mil­lion ha just in the Ma­ha­rash­tra re­gion alone. Farm­ers re­ported los­ing as much as 33% to over 50% of the stand­ing crop. In 2018 the pro­jec­tions for the en­tire re­gion sug­gested a min­i­mum dip in cot­ton pro­duc­tion of at least 40% across-the-board, all be­cause of the sin­gle-va­ri­ety seed be­ing used by the farm­ers and the evo­lu­tion­ary speed with which the pink boll­worm can re­spond to that sin­gle-point threat.

Farm­ers re­sponded by at­tempted to flood their lands with pes­ti­cides which they hoped would stop the spread of the pests. The pes­ti­cide did vir­tu­ally noth­ing to stop the pests. In the ap­pli­ca­tion process, it did un­for­tu­nately poi­son the lands for other things. In runoff, it also leached into water­ways and af­fected the safety of drink­ing wa­ter, among other things.

With ex­penses high to keep plant­ing and crop yields way down, farm­ers re­sponded with the only thing they could do. They com­mit­ted sui­cide in large num­bers, un­der pres­sure from oth­ers they owed money to and un­able to meet even a small frac­tion of the de­mands placed on them.

In the U.S. noth­ing has hap­pened di­rectly like the pink boll­worm prob­lem, but there is still the same risk. The big­gest is­sue in­stead is preda­tory mar­ket de­vel­op­ment prac­tices the GMO providers use to lock farm­ers into their prod­ucts – and then de­stroy them.

In some ways the prac­tice is akin to the way drug push­ers ac­quire new cus­tomers. They pro­vide ini­tial quan­ti­ties at low cost, some­times help with di­rect fi­nanc­ing and in other cases help with in­di­rect sup­port of the farm­ers in other ways. They come across as the good friends of the farm­ers, just there to help out. It’s an ad­dic­tive siren song that “we’re all in this to­gether”, when in fact that is about as far as pos­si­ble from the truth as it could be. In­stead, when yields turn out now to be less than what they might have been pro­jected to be, or cli­mate change im­pacts the crop yields, the once good friend to the farmer mask comes down. Even if times are go­ing well, the seed providers of­ten jack up the prices in the com­ing sea­sons, know­ing the farm­ers have lit­tle choice but to com­ply or face any num­ber of calami­ties in at­tempt­ing to switch back away from GMO crops to some­thing else. These of course in­clude all the is­sues de­scribed above.

The sit­u­a­tion is now even worse af­ter in­dus­try con­sol­i­da­tion has made it harder for farm­ers to look for al­ter­na­tives to their ex­ist­ing GMO seeds. Ger­many’s Bayer, also a ma­jor ge­net­i­cally-mod­i­fied crop provider and agribusi­ness gi­ant, re­cently merged with Mon­santo. Dow Chem­i­cal and Dupont have pooled their re­sources to­gether. Even Syn­genta, formed and man­aged in Switzer­land, is now owned by Chem China, a mas­sive Chi­nese con­glom­er­ate.

With the trap of hav­ing to stay with GMOS and with prices be­ing raised on those prod­ucts and their part­ner chem­i­cals, one side of the pres­sure trap is solidly in place for Amer­ica’s farm­ers. Farm in­comes have un­for­tu­nately also con­tin­ued to drop since 2013. 2018 in­comes are cur­rently pro­jected to close at 35 per­cent less than what they were just five years ago.

This com­bined pres­sure has, ac­cord­ing to a re­port re­leased by CBS News, caused farm­ers to die – with sui­cide be­ing a ma­jor fac­tor just as it is in In­dia – at num­bers over five times that of the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion. This is hap­pen­ing de­spite the over­all na­tional sui­cide rate it­self now hav­ing risen rapidly in the past cou­ple of decades.

The sit­u­a­tion is only go­ing to be get­ting worse in the near fu­ture for farm­ers who didn't pre­vi­ously make the switch to or­ganic farm­ing. Prices of Gmo-re­lated sup­plies will con­tinue to go up, yields will come down as su­per­weeds and su­per­bugs evolve to at­tack the crops (just as they did in In­dia), and cli­mat­e­change in­duced losses from higher tem­per­a­tures and in­creas­ing drought will cre­ate fur­ther harm. If the pro­jected over­all crop de­mands drop as a re­sult of counter-tar­iffs in the Trump-in­duced trade wars, some­thing which is al­ready be­com­ing vis­i­ble, that will hurt even more. There also ap­pears to be a loom­ing eco­nomic sag com­ing ahead for the na­tion and the world as early as 2019. That on top of ev­ery­thing else could dampen de­mand for all but the most crit­i­cal crops, which in turn will lower prices and hurt farm­ers ev­ery­where.

Now is a good time for farm­ers to con­sider switch­ing to in­door in­ten­sive hy­dro­ponic and aquaponic farm­ing. The de­mand for pes­ti­cide-free fruits and veg­eta­bles con­tin­ues to grow rapidly while pro­duc­tion costs de­cline with new tech­nol­ogy.

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